Where do good ideas come from? For centuries, all credit went to faith, fortune and some fair muses. But to assume creativity is some lofty trait enjoyed by the few is both foolish and unproductive, argues Jonah Lehrer in "Imagine," a smart new book about creativity. Drawing from a wide array of scientific and sociological research--and everything from the poetry of W.H. Auden to the films of Pixar--he makes a convincing case that innovation cannot only be studied and measured, but also nurtured and encouraged.
When Lehrer visits 3M, one of many examples in the book, he finds employees engaged in all sorts of frivolous activities, such as playing pinball and wandering about the campus. These workers are actually pushed to take regular breaks, as time away from a problem can help spark a moment of insight. This is because interrupting work with a relaxing activity lets the mind turn inward, where it can subconsciously puzzle over subtle meanings and connections.
This is just one reason for 3M's creative output. The company also expects workers to spend around 15 percent of their time pursuing speculative ideas. The reason why this approach works -- and why it has been imitated by other companies such as Google -- is because many breakthroughs come when people venture beyond their area of expertise. Often it takes an outsider to ask the kind of dumb questions that may yield an unconventional solution.
This is why young people tend to be the most innovative thinkers in nearly any field. Still, Lehrer reassures readers that anyone can stay creative as long as he or she works "to maintain the perspective of the outsider."
This is an engaging book that reveals creativity as less a sign of genius than a natural human potential. Lehrer ends with a call for better policy to "increase our collective creativity." He also warns that the work demands a lot of time, sweat and grit. Or, as Albert Einstein put it: "Creativity is the residue of time wasted."